Mid-year state budget clears Georgia House committee

ATLANTA – Georgia House budget writers approved a $32.6 billion mid-year state budget Wednesday that takes advantage of a $6.6 billion revenue surplus to increase spending 7.8% above the record fiscal 2023 budget lawmakers adopted last spring.

“It is putting the focus on the people of this state and our state employees,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, said of the mid-year budget, which covers state spending through June. “We’ve got the money right now to do that.”

The mid-year spending plan, which the full House will take up Thursday, supports most of the mid-year budget recommendations Gov. Brian Kemp outlined last month. Big-ticket items in the governor’s plan include $166.7 million in grants to help the state land large economic development projects, $105 million for a new electronic medical records system at the Medical College of Georgia, and $92 million for a state reinsurance plan launching this month that aims to hold down health coverage premiums.

House appropriators also endorsed Kemp’s request for $51.4 million for emergency maintenance and repairs to state prisons and $35.7 million to establish a Rural Workforce Housing Fund.

The House committee also kicked in additional funds beyond the governor’s recommendations in a number of areas.

The panel put an extra $1 million toward completing an expansion of the Savannah Convention Center, an amount to be matched later by the Senate. Kemp also is seeking $8 million in bond funding for the project in his fiscal 2024 budget package.

House appropriators added $23 million to the school security grants the governor is requesting in his mid-year budget plan, for a total of $138.8 million.

The committee also earmarked $5 million for the Georgia Department of Human Services to help find housing for foster children. A lack of space is forcing the “hoteling” of foster kids in hotels or state offices, a problem that was highlighted during a legislative hearing last week.

The House panel also is looking to provide an additional $7.8 million in state aid to airports and $5.7 million for additional aircraft and hangars at the School of Aviation on Middle Georgia State University’s Eastman campus.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.
 

Former House Speaker Ralston’s widow loses in runoff for his seat

ATLANTA – A banker from Blue Ridge defeated the widow of former Georgia House Speaker David Ralston Tuesday in a runoff election for Ralston’s Northwest Georgia House seat.

Republican Johnny Chastain captured 52.8% of the vote to 47.2% for Sheree Ralston, according to unofficial results.

The seat became vacant when Ralston died in November at the age of 68. He had served as House speaker for a dozen years.

Chastain and Sheree Ralston were the top two vote getters in a special election in early January. But the race was forced into a runoff when neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote.

Several other special elections for vacant seats in the General Assembly also took place on Tuesday.

Former state Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, easily won a seat in the Georgia Senate over two other candidates. Watson declared for the Senate after former Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, took a position as chief medical officer with the state Department of Community Health.

Colquitt County Administrator Charles “Chas” Cannon was elected to succeed Watson in the House. Cannon, a Republican, ran unoppose

The other special election contested on Tuesday won’t be decided until a Feb. 28 runoff. Republicans Holt Persinger and Charlie Chase received the most votes in a seven-way race for the House District 119 seat.

Persinger, a landscape architect from Winder, received 27.9% of the vote to 25.5% for Chase, a contractor also from Winder.

The seat opened up after then-Rep.-elect Danny Rampey was arrested in December and charged with stealing prescription drugs from an assisted living complex he was managing in Winder. Rampey chose to resign the seat he had just won in November rather than face being suspended from the legislature.

The 119th House District includes all of Barrow County and a portion of Jackson County.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

New bill would set mandatory minimum sentences for gang recruitment 

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers want to increase the sentence for gang recruitment activities as part of a tough-on-crime push under the Gold Dome this legislative session.  

A new state Senate bill would increase the penalties for recruiting someone to join a gang or participate in gang activity through mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that judges would have to follow in most cases.  

Sponsored by Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, Senate Bill 44 has the backing of Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones.   

“This bill is one piece of the overall approach to reaffirm that Georgia will not tolerate gang activity or recruitment,” Jones said. “Senate Bill 44 will enact powerful new tools to combat the violent street gangs operating across our state.”

The bill requires judges to impose at least a five-year prison sentence for violation of the law. If the person who has been recruited to the gang is under 17 years of age or has a disability, the mandatory minimum penalty is steeper – at least 10 years for the first offense.  

The legislation provides some exceptions to the mandatory minimum sentences, including if the accused has not already been convicted of a felony or if the judge decides that “the interests of justice will not be served.” It also provides an exception to the minimum sentencing rules if the accused helps with identifying and convicting other gang members.  

Not everyone agrees that the bill’s sentences for gang recruitment would help solve Georgia’s crime problem.  

Senate Democrats would prefer to reduce the number of guns on the street in Georgia and increase community investments in mental health and violence-prevention programs, according to a legislative agenda released Tuesday.

“We will be tough on crime in a common-sense way: keeping guns away from people who will harm Georgians,” the agenda states.  

In general, states have moved away from mandatory minimum sentencing requirements over the past few decades, said Kay Levine, a professor at the Emory University School of Law and an expert in criminal procedure.  

Levine said leniency in sentencing is not a major problem in Georgia, and increasing penalties does not necessarily deter crime.  

“All that we know about deterrence is that it is the likelihood of getting caught that affects people’s behavior… not the punishment,” she said.  

Judges often view the minimum sentencing rules as legislative overreach into the judicial domain, Levine said. 

“They’re like, ‘We have this job for a reason: we’re the ones who hear the evidence, we’re the ones who read the pre-sentence report, we’re the ones who have seen the defendant testify, we hear from the victim,” Levine said of how many judges think about such requirements.  “’We are judges, we are here to exercise our judgement.’”  

Despite such misgivings, the bill has a strong shot of success in what has been a slow start to the legislative session. Twenty-two Senate Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors.  

“There is no place for gangs in Georgia,” said Hatchett, the bill’s main sponsor. “Passage of this vital legislation is a top priority.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Kia celebrates Georgia success while looking to future

Kia’s EV6 electric vehicle

ATLANTA – Georgia’s political leaders celebrated Kia Day at the state Capitol Tuesday, touting past successes at Kia’s plant in West Point even as the Korean automaker prepares to start producing EV6 electric vehicles.

The West Point Kia plant, which opened in 2009, is turning out more than 1,400 cars per day, Stuart Countess, president and CEO of Kia Georgia, said during an outdoor ceremony at Liberty Plaza across from the Capitol. The company expects to pass the 4 million mark sometime in April, he said.

The plant boasts a workforce of more than 3,000 employees and more than 14,000 when counting the various suppliers that serve the plant.

“What an incredible story,” said Gov. Brian Kemp, who followed Countess to the podium. “Kia has not only been a good partner for our state but has been incredibly successful here.”

Kia’s success story helped convince Korean affiliate automaker Hyundai to commit $5.5 billion last year to building an electric vehicle manufacturing near Savannah expected to create 8,100 jobs when fully built out, making it the largest economic development project in Georgia history.

Together, Kia and Hyundai have been responsible for two “generational” investments in the Peach State in less than two decades, Kemp said.

The West Point plant thus far has produced the highly popular Telluride sports-utility vehicle and the Sorrento SUV. Now, the Korean automaker is making a foray into the electric vehicle market with the EV6.

“Kia’s an active participant in Georgia’s Electric Mobility and Innovation Alliance,” Kemp said, referring to an initiative the governor launched in 2020 aimed at strengthening Georgia’s status as a leader in the electric mobility industry.

Kemp and legislative leaders are anxious to move forward during the current session with legislation paving the way for construction of a network of EV charging stations across the state.

A bill addressing that issue fell short last year, caught up in a disagreement over who would build and operate the charging stations, retailers including convenience stores or electric utilities.

Kemp acknowledged Tuesday the issue likely will involve difficult negotiations but said he’s confident a solution can be reached.

“It’s going to be a complicated process,” he said. “But our goal is to keep everybody at the table.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Ossoff goes to bat for two proposed land preservation projects in Georgia

Dugdown Mountain Corridor

ATLANTA – U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., is asking the United States Forest Service to support two fiscal 2024 Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) projects in Georgia.

The proposed Dugdown Mountain Corridor project would build on a multi-state effort to connect the Paulding/Sheffield Forest areas northwest of Atlanta to the Talladega National Forest in Alabama.

The proposed Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest project would add new land across watersheds that provide drinking water to millions of people and contain habitat for endangered species, ensuring they are further protected.

“There is significant demand for public use for both projects,” Ossoff wrote in a letter last week to the chief of the forest service, Randy Moore. “However, these areas’ proximity to urban centers also increases the risk that they will be converted into non-forest use. Thus, it is urgent that these lands be secured through the LWCF.”

Both areas are popular with Georgians seeking recreation and exercise. Three million people visit the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest each year, while 46% of all Georgia hunters and anglers visit the Dugdown Corridor.

Ossoff’s efforts to protect the two areas follow congressional passage last year of legislation he sponsored providing $90 million in federal funds to help protect the Chattahoochee River.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Senate bill aims to regulate third-party food delivery industry

ATLANTA – Legislation establishing regulations for the fast-growing third-party food delivery industry in Georgia has been introduced in the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 34 is an outgrowth of a Senate study committee chaired by Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, that held several meetings last summer and fall to talk about an industry that has no federal oversight and only patchwork state and local regulations.

Third-party food delivery was virtually non-existent before the pandemic closed restaurants to in-person dining. Apps including Uber Eats and DoorDash sprang up so quickly and grew so rapidly that health regulators couldn’t catch up, resulting in complaints from customers of unsanitary practices.

The industry also ran afoul of restaurant owners, who complained third-party food deliverers were running ads featuring their names without authorization, touting relationships that didn’t exist.

Senate Bill 34 would put an end to such practices in Georgia, prohibiting third-party food companies from advertising non-existent connections with restaurants and requiring them to enter into contracts with restaurants before picking up and delivering food from those facilities.

The legislation also would require vehicles used for third-party food delivery to be clean. No smoking or vaping would be allowed inside delivery vehicles, and pets would be prohibited unless they are service animals.

Food containers delivered via a thirty party would have to be closed, sealed and tamper resistant. Thermal containers would be required when necessary to keep food at the proper temperature.

Parent’s bill has bipartisan cosponsors, including Republican Sens. John Albers of Roswell and Frank Ginn of Danielsville. Democratic cosponsors include Sens. Harold Jones of Augusta and Sally Harrell of Atlanta.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.